By Tom Ayres, Senior Staff Writer
The Green Mountain Perkins Academy (GMPA), a venerable South Woodstock landmark, has been honored with an official historical marker from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation.
A group of about 30 Woodstock area residents — several of them descendants of the young men and women who attended the academy during its 50-year run as a celebrated educational institution in rural Vermont — gathered last Saturday to mark the unveiling of the historic site signage. At a social hour following the unveiling and in subsequent conversations, members of the Green Mountain Perkins Academy Board of Directors, community leaders, and local history buffs spoke of the import of the academy to their ancestors, the community, and the American educational system prior to the rise of public high schools.
The two-sided historic marker placed prominently at the roadside in front of the former school along Route 106 in South Woodstock recalls the fabled academy vividly and succinctly. Jane Soule, a Green Mountain Perkins Academy and Historic Association (GMPAHA) board member and chair of the Woodstock Village Development Review Board, whose ancestors dotted the rolls of the GMPA in the latter half of the 19th Century, recited the words of the historic sign to the assemblage following the roadside unveiling.
“Chartered as the Green Mountain Liberal Institute, the Academy was founded by community leaders and Universalist ministers. It provided secondary schooling to men and women ages 15 to 20. Pupils from the area and throughout the Northeast boarded out in nearby homes. The ringing bell announced the start of classes in the sciences, music, art, astronomy, and history. Greek and Latin were mandatory for Classical education. The first commencement was held in 1854 for ten students, with successive classes reaching 200 [students],” Soule read, continuing, “Land for the ‘liberal and scientific institute’ was donated by Royal Cottle, a successful farmer. Local carpenter Otis Woods built the Greek Revival-style school building. In 1869, the name was changed to the Green Mountain Perkins Academy, in recognition of a bequest by Gaius Perkins, a tanner, shoemaker, and president of the Academy’s board of trustees.”
Diane Wood, a GMPA board member who was spotlighted at the Saturday ceremony, is part of the ninth generation of Woods family members to inhabit South Woodstock. Her great-great-great grandfather was Otis Wood, who built the GMPA in 1848. Three generations of Woods family young men and women attended the school and the contemporary Wood, a lifelong denizen of South Woodstock, fondly remembers visits to the former academy during her own youth. The GMPA fell victim to the advent of public high schools and closed its doors in 1898, subsequently serving as a local Grange, community hall, and South Woodstock’s historical center and museum. Under the trusteeship of the GMPAHA, the interior has been preserved much as it appeared in the late 1800s, with original desks, books, maps, and portraits of the staff and students.
“The Noah Wood Road [in South Woodstock] is named after my five-time great-grandfather,” Diane Wood said with a laugh Monday morning. “The family property was along what is now that road. They were among the original settlers. You’ve met Mary Fullerton [McCuaig], the president of the historic association? The Fullertons, Darlings, and Woods settled that property. Back then, if you served in the correct army — the one that won [the Revolutionary War], you were given 100 acres and the opportunity to settle the new country. So, the three families all pooled their resources and worked on each other’s property.”
Wood recollected her own parents and grandparents being particularly involved with the renovation and upkeep of the old academy for decades after it closed. She also remembered one descendent of the original Fullertons of South Woodstock who was particularly impactful on her childhood days visiting the old school. “My grandparents spent a lot of time there and my parents spent a lot of time there as well. My dad was on the association board for years and years.” Diane Wood, in fact, assumed her father Karl’s post on the GMPA board when the elder Wood passed away in 2020. “When I was kid, I spent a lot of time at the academy because members of my family were always there, serving as guides or docents. I would go there when one of them was sitting at an open house. I would play in the school room and I’d work on the loom. Miss Mary Fullerton was often there and she was absolutely wonderful, teaching all the youngsters to run that big loom. It was always a bonus when she was around.”
Diane Wood was particularly effusive about the pioneering role that the Green Mountain Perkins Academy played in secondary education before the rise of public high schools in the late 1800s. “One of the things that I think was unique, especially about this particular academy, is that [the community] decided it wanted to provide an education to everyone. It wasn’t just an elite bunch that was going there, and it was male and female. It was farmers and it was future politicians and ministers. It was future lawyers. It was for everyone, not just those with deep pockets.”
Like Diane Wood, Mary (Fullerton) McCuaig traces her roots back to South Woodstock’s earliest settlers along what is now Noah Wood Road. She also recalls generations of family interactions with and stories about the GMPA, including remembrances of her legendary great-great aunt — the very same Miss Mary Fullerton so charmingly recollected by her lifelong friend Diane.
“My great-grandfather and his five siblings all went to school there,” McCuaig said on Monday morning, two days after hosting the historic marker unveiling. “One of them was my great-great aunt, Mary Fullerton,” she added. “She lived to be 97 and as a little girl I remember her. We used to ride our bikes over to visit her and she would talk about the academy and how much she cherished its history and the education she got there. She became a schoolteacher and was a teacher for her entire career. My maiden name was Mary Fullerton as well and so I really connected with all that history. She was this kind, elder, wise woman who spoke of those times.” One of the upstairs rooms at the GMPA today is devoted to photographs and artifacts from the life of Miss Mary Fullerton, including the fully restored, original loom on which the teacher, who never married, taught generations of local children how to weave.
Again like her friend and GMPA colleague Diane Wood, McCuaig is continuing a family legacy of service to the former academy, its restoration, programming, and continued upkeep. She is the current president of the GMPAHA. Her father, longtime GMPA supporter and board member Milton Fullerton, died last year. McCuaig’s mother was from Connecticut and not an Upper Valley native, but she had an abiding interest in local history and also served the historic association during Mary McCuaig’s formative years. “She was one of the docents when I was growing up — hostesses, I guess they called them. I’d go down there and play, pretending to be in school, sitting on those old benches, at those old desks. I’ve always just had a fondness for the academy — it helped bestow a real sense of history in me.”
That history is now enshrined on an official state historic marker, thanks to the efforts of GMPA Treasurer Hunter Melville, who guided the organization along the path to getting the official designation from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation (VDPH). “My wife and I became members of the 251 Club during COVID,” Melville said Monday, referring to the organization for Vermont enthusiasts whose objective is to visit all 251 towns and cities in the state. “The pandemic put a lot of time into our hands. We traveled all over the state — I think we have 24 [communities] left to visit — and we decided we would look at historical markers. And it wasn’t a big leap to ask, ‘Why don’t we have one for the Green Mountain Perkins Academy?’” Seventeen months ago, Melville penned a letter of inquiry to the VDPH and State Historic Preservation Officer Laura Trieschmann responded enthusiastically.
Following an exhaustive application process, vetting and research by the VDPH staff, and wordsmithing by Melville and Trieschmann for the historic marker, the new signage now catches the eye of locals and visitors to South Woodstock alike, drawing their attention to the historic school building nestled just off Route 106. It is the first state-approved historic marker in the Village of South Woodstock.
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